Inside the First Amendment
By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center
I can say what I want, even if it offends you. And so can you.
No American government official, high or low, federal, state or local, can silence our freedom of expression — whether it’s our views on politics, public issues or religious faith.
If someone says something we don’t like, we can freely express ourselves in opposition, even if that speaker is a mayor, governor or — as we see clearly this election year — the president or his opponent.
Not so in many other nations, where governments control news and information, and an intemperate remark or nonconforming view can bring condemnation, prosecution or even death.
Americans simply view freedom of speech differently from much of the world, where freedom from some speech also is seen as a right.
For example: Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, speaking Sept. 26 at the United Nations: “Egypt respects freedom of expression. One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. One that is not directed towards one specific religion or culture. A freedom of expression that tackles extremism and violence. Not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregards others.”
Under the First Amendment, and over the past 90 years in our courts, we have developed law that sets specific criteria for the rare times we can be prosecuted and punished for what we say. Threats must pose real, imminent danger against a specific person to run afoul of the law. Criticism and public commentary, however vile, are seen as less of a negative than the alternative — government control of what we say, leading to control of what we think.
Vulgarity may shock public tastes, but no government officials have the right to silence us simply because they are offended. Bigotry may be condemned by the many even as it is embraced by the few, but no court sits in judgment on the viewpoint. Blasphemy may enrage the faithful or entertain the faithless, but no religious council has secular power to silence the blasphemer.
Still, in the wake of the video “Innocence of Muslims,” angry mobs overseas have demanded prosecution of the film’s maker and action by the Obama administration to force YouTube to remove it. Failure to do so is seen by many abroad as American government acceptance if not encouragement of the anti-Islam message.
Why the disconnect? The reasons for the violence, including the despicable attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador in Libya and three other Americans, are complex. But consider that in many nations, any public expression occurs with official approval or support. In those places with an official state religion, no blasphemy is tolerated.
Let’s not forget that even in the United States, we’re still trying to determine the proper role of religion in the public square more than 220 years after adopting the Bill of Rights. Think of prayer in public schools, posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings and religious influences on public policy on matters ranging from birth control to euthanasia.
There are some positive elements amidst the chaos of recent weeks.
We should not be too bothered by the Obama administration’s request that Google, which owns YouTube, determine whether “Innocence” violated the company’s own terms of service, and should be encouraged that, when Google said it didn’t, nothing happened.
It’s troubling when our government criticizes any free expression or the speaker, as it did with the film. But we should find some comfort in the fact that even when high officials condemn a message, they don’t feel empowered to censor the speaker.
In some ways, we all — Americans and those caught up in violence overseas — are paying the price for foreign governments that control speech and religious liberty. Those rigid systems fear dissent and diversity, and teach by example that cabal and conspiracy are behind every public utterance.
Societies used to the give-and-take of public debate are not so easily shocked by a video or cartoon with a contrary view. In nations where religious liberty exists for all, no faith need fear for its survival.
The only long-term solution in the Middle East and elsewhere to the outrage, destruction and death over speech that offends rests in the First Amendment’s core provision for more speech, not less.